Creating Outlines can help you define and organize main ideas

I hated outlining when I was young and I imagine many of you felt the same. Why did I hateA young couple sit on the grass and talk. it? I think it was because we had no concept of how useful outlining could be. We were assigned the task of outlining something we weren’t interested in, something that had no value in our minds.

If, instead, we had outlined an article in a popular magazine on “Five Ways to get a Date,” it would have appeared far more helpful.  We’d all have wanted that list of the five ways – and we would certainly have been interested in the steps or details for each. Another advantage would have been how much easier it would have been to describe the article in detail to friends who hadn’t read the article.

Outlining a lecture or reading assignment in college is not likely to be that interesting, but those outlines can be helpful in several ways.

1. Outlining can help you define the main ideas and the related details. When you do this, you sometimes recognize that you are missing important details. You can check back and fill these in the missing information. If you were reading the five ways to get a date and only had a list of four ways, you would certainly go back and look for the fifth way.

2. Outlining is actually a verbal equivalent of a concept map. As you can visualize and recreate a concept map, you can do the same with an outline. This means it is an excellent study tool. You can picture the outline in your mind and then try to write the outline again without referring to the original. There would be no need to use the same words, but it should include all of the main ideas and important details. Students who spend time reviewing this way (testing their memory) will do better on a test than students who spend the same amount of time re-reading the chapter or their notes.

3. Creating an outline improves your memory. You are now using two or more parts of your brain and will find it easier to retrieve the information. You either listened to it (auditory memory) or read it (verbal memory) and now your outline organized the information, (adding visual memory).

A photo of the first page of US Constitution (hand written)

Example: The Preamble to the US Constitution is a very short example.

I chose this topic because most American students have had to memorize this. Some manage to remember it for years, but many have little memory of it except, perhaps, the first phrase: “We, the people of the United States…”

Students outside the US may recognize how great an influence the US Constitution has had around the world. People of many nations have studied and used this document to help them create their own constitutions.  It would be interesting to compare your constitution with the US Constitution and think about why your leaders chose to make certain changes.

Notice that this preamble is only a single sentence, but a fairly long sentence. It is amazing how much content the writers of the Constitution put into a single sentence.

 We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

Below is a picture of a painting showing the Constitution being signed.

Preamble to the Constitution of the United States  (Outline)                  

I. Who –   We, the peoplePhoto of a painting: Signing the Constitution

II. Where –  of the United States

III. Why – in order to do 5 things
.     A. form a more perfect union
.     B. establish justice
.     C. provide for the common defence
.     D. promote the general welfare
.     E. secure the blessings of liberty for
.          1. ourselves
.          2. our posterity

IV. What – Establish this Constitution

Note the structure of this and all formal outlines.

  •  The title is centered.
  •  The main points use Roman numerals.
  •  The second level points use capital letters.
  •  The third level points use numbers.
  • The fourth level points would use lower case letters.
  •  If, in the rare case, you continue to further levels, alternate the use of letters and numbers.

Then notice how much easier it would be to remember:   Who – Where – Why (to do five things) – What

If I had to memorize the five reasons why, I’d use a mnemonic: “Until Jugglers drop we’ll laugh ourselves positively.” Note: my mnemonic refers to a main word, not the first word.

Until – Union
Jugglers – Justice
Drop – Common Defense
We’ll – General Welfare
Laugh – Blessing of Liberty
Ourselves – for Ourselves
Positively – and for our Posterity

This came to me quickly. You might be able to do better. In fact, though easy enough to remember, it doesn’t make sense.  Most people don’t laugh until a juggler drops his ball, they laugh after he drops it. Note that it includes the five things and adds  “ourselves positively” – for ourselves and our posterity.

You should notice that when ever possible, I use, not just the first letter but the first several letters to help me associate the cue with the actual word.

Informal Outlines are often preferable

If you take notes in the form of an outline, you would have trouble deciding when the next point is a subpoint of under another main idea or if it is a new main idea. I generally start with the items that seem to be main ideas at the left margin of the paper. The ideas that seem to be subpoints or examples would then be indented an inch or so. If some of the subpoints are further divided, I would indent further.

If I wrote something as a main point and later realized it was simply a subpoint, an arrow point to the right would make this clear. Similarly, if I thought an idea as a subpoint and changed my mind, I could add an arrow to the left.

When planning a short essay, like the ones Tony was using in the example above, I’d write the main idea (no Roman numerals, letters or numbers). Then I’d indent and simple list he three or four main points.

If a teacher asks for your outline, they expect a formal outline. If you are doing an outline for a lecture or reading assignment, an informal outline is usually best to begin with. If you plan to use this outline to study the material or if this is an outline for a term paper, you should find it helpful, and worth the extra time to rewrite it as a formal outline.

Use outlines to organize your thoughts before writing – or speaking

When I was in high school, we were often required to write an outline of our essay assignments. No teacher ever explained how to do this. My opinion was that I couldn’t write the outline first because I didn’t know what I was going to say. I’m sad to say but I  wasn’t joking. I always wrote the essay and then outlined what I had written. Somehow, I managed to write well-organized essays with an introduction, three or four clearly defined points, and a summary.

I suspect I learned how to do this from hearing so many sermons. The pastors often began with an introduction where the told us what they were going to say. Then the told us, often identified by “First, …. Next,…. and Finally……” They finished by telling us again what they had said (their three main points.) They must have had an outline but I never realized that. I simply followed their pattern.

While helping my son write essays, however, I finally understood how valuable an outline could be. Tony is severely dyslexic. In high school he read at about 3rd grade level and his writing was worse than his reading. I read most of his assignments to him and he dictated his writing assignments as I typed on the computer.

At first,  he often started with eloquent sentences that meant very little. I would stop him and ask him what his point was. Eventually, we made a habit of brainstorming at least five possible brief outlines – each with a list of three or four topics. Tony chose the one he thought would make the best essay.

 With this list, Tony was able to dictate clear, easy to understand sentences that covered the topics in a well-organized way.

It worked for Tony.  Now it works for me.

I now think about my one main idea, the purpose of my writing or talk. I brainstorm a list of main ideas and try out a dozen or so possible combinations to create my three or four main ideas. If I’m writing something short, this is enough of an outline.  I use my main idea for both the introduction and conclusion.

 I only add another level of detail if  I am writing something more complex or doing a longer talk.

When writing a 3-5 page paper or doing a 20-30 minute talk, I generally list three main points, each with three sub-points always including a story or an example as one point.

When writing a longer paper or doing a one hour lecture, I often use four points, each with three or four sub-points.

When speaking, this outline (often arranged as a chart,) is all I need for notes.

If you still think that you don’t know what you’re going to write until you have written it, follow the next seven steps.

1. Start by writing without an outline. This is called “Pre-writing.”
2. Outline what you wrote.
3. Write the main idea in your essay.
4. Could you write an even better main idea? Write your new Main Idea.
5. Check the main points in your outline. Are they the best possible main points or could you delete or combine some of these? Should you add another important main idea?
6. Write a new list of main points.
7. Begin writing a good essay.

Ways to use an Outline

1. Outline a book, using the table of contents – with minimal detail

2. Outline a chapter in a book or journal article – including much more detail,
the amount depending on the detail you want or need to know.

3. Outline a lecture while listening or afterwards.

4. Outline a small part of a chapter that you need to know in detail. Use many levels of detail.

5. Use your outlines to prepare for exams. It helps to have a file or notebook to organize your outlines by book and chapter or by the date of the lectures.

6. Use an outline before writing… before writing essay questions on a test or before writing a term paper. It is also helpful when preparing a short talk or longer lecture.

If you would like to read another good outline – an outline of one of my favorite books.

Build Brain Outline      On the webpage about Summaries, you’ll find a link to the summary of the same material.

You might also want to read the page on writing and using a Summary

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